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A Word About Toilet Paper in the COVID-19 Era

We know something serious is going down when people start hoarding toilet paper, which is exactly what began this month when word reached the U.S. that COVID-19 was coming for us.

I don’t know who started the memo suggesting people start stocking up on toilet paper to prepare for The Virus, but it seemed kind of like our country’s wealth balance: about 1 percent of the people got the memo and bought up all the toilet paper, and the other 99 percent were left wondering what the heck happened to their Charmin, and were forced to recalculate how many squares will do the trick, and how long they had before their toilet paper supply ran out.

In my house, I figure I have about 25 days before things start getting dicey.

Even so, I wouldn’t be talking about any of this, especially at a time like this — when COVID-19 is a life-and-death worldwide disaster that doesn’t just threaten lives but takes lives — except that the toilet paper shortage is a realty. And besides, while there’s really not a damn thing we mortals can do about the Coronavirus, other than to stay home and do our best to stay healthy, we do have control over what we flush. What’s more, thinking about toilet paper is a nice distraction from thinking about a pandemic that takes no prisoners, and the fact that we’re probably going to zip directly passed an international recession directly to a full-blown global depression. I’d rather think about toilet paper shortages than how scary and surreal and uncertain the world is right now.

To quote my 9-year-old grandson (who spoke with me via video call): “The Coronavirus has ruined EVERYTHING!”

I hear you, sweetie. It certainly does seem that way, doesn’t it?

Kind of reminds me of a meme I saw on Facebook this week:

Jan 1: “2020 is my year!”

March 20: *Wiping my ass with a coffee filter.*

Time here in the COVID-19 era moves so quickly. Things change minute by minute, hour by hour, so it seems years since we enjoyed the luxury of walking into any store and not just buying any toilet paper, but to have so many choices, back when only robbers wore masks in banks and stores. Remember those days?

Photo by Steve DuBois

Today, store shelves where toilet paper displays once offered myriad plys and tush-cushiony options *sigh* are as empty as a March 23 Cinemark theater. Lately, however, I notice that some well-meaning store employees have filled those former toilet paper shelves with the few remaining rolls of paper towels.

Photo by Steve DuBois

As if. As if  paper towels are just toilet paper’s bigger, brawnier cousin. Au contraire’, my fellow housebound friends. Ask any plumber and you’ll learn that paper towels are a plumber’s time-release goldmine. Same with those so-called “flushable wipes” – because the fact is, sewer systems can’t handle them, simply because those products do not break down – were not meant to break down – as toilet paper is specially designed to do. Once flushed, those seemingly innocent paper towels will result in an eventual plumbing disaster. Guaranteed.

By plumbing disaster, I mean that the stuff that’s renowned for running downhill will create a blockage, and up it will come in all its putrid glory, gurgling and oozing like raw-sewage lava, geysering into bathtubs, showers, and most of all toilets, sometimes overflowing up and over the bowl and onto the floor. Of course, after that,  you have no choice but to set a match to your house and walk away.

Not to get too off topic here, but I’m going there because I don’t know when I’ll have the chance again to address unflushable items, but friend and writer Dan Adams of Edgewood Plumbing once offered a fascinating list of items (hey, I asked) that should never, ever be flushed, unless you have nothing better to do with your money than have a plumber on speed dial and a direct deposit of money funneled to that plumber from what’s left of your retirement fund.

Here’s the list, other than the already addressed paper towels and wipes (and, sorry, but tampons and condoms too): matches, dental floss and toothpicks. Are you as surprised as I was to learn about those items? Dan explained that those seemingly little things get caught up in a fine mesh of tree roots which also snag bigger things (see above), until soon they form a truly impenetrable crappy dam. He said dental floss is one of the worst culprits. Who knew? Dan knew. Plumbers know.

You’re welcome.

The last time I was actually in a real store I saw a man carrying a 12-pack of toilet-paper. He had it firmly under one arm, like a quarterback clutching a football, ready to make a run for it. Shoppers slowly stopped and stared, until one man asked the question everyone wondered.

“Where’d you find that?”

The man gripped the package a little more tightly, and stepped back an extra step, making it about seven feet between us and his booty booty.

“I found it over there, on the bottom shelf. It was the last one.”

Everyone turned to look in the direction he’d pointed, which was beneath a roasted chicken display.

In this Twilight Zone era of COVID-19, nobody challenged the man. We just stood there, gaping at that improbable spot, wondering why the last package of toilet paper in the entire store – maybe the whole world for all we knew – was found there. By the time we looked back to the man, he was gone.

I later saw the T.P. man in another aisle, talking with an older guy who’d cornered T.P. man to inquire about the toilet paper. I caught just the end of the toilet-paper man’s response, “… over by the roasted chickens, but I got the last one … ”

At that, the older guy got all philosophical about the unnecessary fuss over toilet paper, and how much do we really need, and think about it, how often do we poop – two times a day, maybe, if we’re lucky. He said if we planned our pooping right, we could get in the car and drive somewhere else to poop, like in a store restroom, thus conserving the home front’s precious remaining toilet paper stash. The T.P. man just nodded and smiled, like he was obligated to pretend to care about a stranger’s b.m. strategy, because the enviable man with the toilet paper had basically scored a touchdown when he got that last package of toilet paper.

Here’s a practical question: So, seriously, what is a person to do, in a pinch, so to speak, when one runs out of toilet paper, and there’s none for sale, and no friends or family have any to spare, and corncobs, National Geographic pages and leaves are not an option? Sure, Kleenex is probably the next-best first-line, obvious substitute, and it’s probably OK (though don’t take my word for it, because I’ve not consulted with Dan). But when those Kleenex boxes, with just 85 2-ply sheets, are gone, that’s when paper towels start to look promising to desperate people, but you now know how that will end. After that, then what?

Well, here in Redding, our city suffered a massive sewer blockage as a result of something flushed far worse than all those unflushable items I mentioned earlier: cut-up T-shirts. Yes, T-shirts.  Oh, dear Redding, must you make it so easy for outsiders to mock us?

What’s amazing to me is that so many people – no doubt part of the 98 percent – collectively arrived at T-shirts as a viable toilet paper replacement that the mass of all those T-shirt scraps wreaked havoc with the city’s sanitation system, enough to warrant a press release asking citizens to please refrain from flushing T-shirts down the toilet, which you’d kind of think would be obvious.

I am not here to judge.

I do, however, come bearing some suggestions.

Buy a bidet. Actually, in some parts of Europe bidets are common. I hate to break it to you, but  Americans are sometimes disparaged for not having bidets, not so much out of a concern for conserving paper (but there is that) but because in places were bidets are the rule, not the exception, they’re considered more sanitary, and a more efficient means of doing a thorough clean-up.  One article I read on the topic of bidets quoted a man who went on and on about the vast quantity of toilet paper required to do a proper job. Basically, he said Americans walk around with dirty bums.

I cannot believe I’m writing about this.

But as much as a bidet makes such civilized sense, I see two immediate problems with that solution: First, bidets are kind of pricey (unless you’re going for the garden hose/kitchen sprayer model that jets a fire hose of icy water to your nether regions …  no thank you). Second, you’d need a plumber to install one, and good luck with getting on a waiting list for a plumber these days. (See paper towels, above.)

My other primitive, admittedly extreme solution is to yes, go ahead use those unflushables, but don’t flush them. Rather, deposit them in a bucket beside the toilet, one with a plastic bag and a tightly fitting lid. You can use doggie poop bags for each deposit into the receptacle, if that makes you feel any better about it.

City of Redding, I accept your thanks in advance for speaking about the unspeakable and helping save the city’s sewer system.

If you thought my idea of soiled wipes and paper towels in a bin beside the toilet was disgusting, I have two additional words for you: diaper pail. Those of us in that high-risk Coronavirus age-group remember diaper pails well. They were standard in every home that had an infant on the premises, and the process was simple. After a baby’s cloth diaper was changed, you took the soiled diaper, bobbed it in the toilet to shake off any solids, then you deposited the wet diaper into the bucket’s bleach-water solution and tightly – quickly – closed the lid. Eventually, you’d have to take the bucket, dump the entire stinky contents into the washing machine and wash the whole load in scalding water with more bleach and laundry soap. That process was followed for generations, and in fact, I used a diaper pail when I had babies in cloth diapers. It wasn’t fun, but it was efficient and cost-effective.

Guess what? That diaper-pail method would also work for those special T-shirt squares, especially if you were short on disposable T-shirts and were inclined to recycle them for future use. Again, no shaming here. What you do in the privacy of your bathroom is between you and your bod.

Or, you could follow the elderly shopper’s advice; wait for nature’s No. 2 call, and drive to a store to use its restroom. If there are any stores still open. And if the stores allow customers to use their restrooms, what with all the toilet paper theft. And then where would you be? Up shit creek, that’s where.

Second thought, just invest in a dang bidet and call it good.

In the meantime, we can dream of the day when the world is no longer upside down, when the pandemic is just a historical nightmare image in our rear view mirror, when people stop hoarding toilet paper, and in fact, when teenagers gather in groups and blissfully TP houses for entertainment; when we can hug each other and stand close to each other and go to movies and attend weddings, birthdays and funerals; and my granddaughter, after just a tiny tinkle, can once again spin the roll of toilet paper like something out of Wheel of Fortune, with enough toilet paper wrapped around her 6-year-old hand to resemble a mini Statue of Liberty torch.

Until then, staring cutting up T-shirts.

Doni Chamberlain

Independent online journalist Doni Chamberlain founded what’s now known as anewscafe.com in 2007 with her son, Joe Domke. Chamberlain is an award-winning newspaper opinion columnist, feature and food writer recognized by the Associated Press, the California Newspaper Publishers Association and E.W. Scripps. She lives in Redding, California.

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